This summer, former University of Oregon and current TrackTown USA star Alexi Pappas will lace up her running shoes for the Greek national team at this year’s Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Pappas, a Greek-American, grew up in Alameda, California, where she was an instant star of her high school track team. However, her success came at a price. She was forced to choose between running and other interests like soccer and theater. She stepped away from the track.
“In high school, I wasn’t ready to be that 100 percent committed runner because I hadn’t found joy in the sport that I then found in college,” she said.
The break put her at a disadvantage when she began competing again at Dartmouth where, at least at the beginning, she came in dead last. But she found joy in the sport through her coach and teammates.
“Despite my inability to contribute a single team point, my excitement for being there was so much bigger than it was in high school,” she said. Now she’s an international athlete.
This summer Pappas will compete in the 10k, a grinding endurance trial of 25 laps where success is defined by outlasting the competition.
“My biggest mantra during a race is actually just the word ‘stay,’” Pappas said. “To stay with myself, to stay with my pace, to stay with the group — just to stay.”
“What’s helped me is to bring that sense of wonder and amusement to the most painful parts of the race or into my everyday training,” she said. “If you can’t find the details in the leaves to lift you through mile seven or mile 15, it’s going to be a lonely run.”
Track is as much of a mental challenge as it is physical, she said. It’s one thing to stay sharp during a race, but much of her confidence as a runner comes from a confidence in her own body.
“When I was transitioning and becoming more of a distance runner, I became very aware that my biceps were bigger than some of the boys I was dating,” Pappas said. She leaned on her teammates to help her embrace her athletic body. She said that they would tell her, “You’re not flat chested, you’re strong.”
Now Pappas has stepped up as a role model for young female athletes in her choice to run for Greece. As a Greek-American, Pappas made a decision that went beyond competition. She said that prominent female athletes are still unusual in Greece. Pappas remembered an exchange with a young girl she met at a boy’s soccer game during one of her visits to the country. The girl told Pappas that she had never seen a woman with such a strong body.
Pappas said, “That’s why I’m here, too.”
Despite her choice to run for Greece, Pappas said that Eugene has become her home. No matter how far she goes, she said “It’s great to step off the plane and smell Oregon.”